Tuesday 17 July 2018

There's a special kind of monster that's a woman - Amanda Knox

Twice convicted and twice acquitted of the murder of Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox has launched a new show interviewing other vilified women. She talks to Maggie Armstrong

Amanda Knox on her new talk show
Amanda Knox on her new talk show
Common ground: In the first episode of Amanda's show The Scarlet Letter Reports she meets feminist video blogger Anita Sarkeesian, who has experienced online harassment and death threats
Amanda Knox pictured after her murder acquittal in 2015
Amanda Knox behind bars
Amanda Knox in court in Italy in 2009

Every morning when Amanda Knox wakes, she opens her phone and reads what the trolls have to say.

"Like most millennials, I have the bad, anxiety-inducing habit of grabbing my phone in the morning and scrolling through social media for 15, 20 minutes before I'm fully awake. That's when I first glimpse the hateful comments that I've received overnight.

"If I put up a picture of me with Chris and our cat I'm often thrown back the following. 'Murderer.' 'C***.' 'Aren't you actually guilty of something?' 'Why are you pretending to be innocent you psychopath?' 'You get to live your life and Meredith doesn't, aren't you ashamed of yourself?'

It is 9.30am in Seattle (5.30pm in Dublin) and the world's most famous exoneree is sitting on a footstool in her bedroom. Rattling off these abuses, she maintains a detached tone of voice. It's over 10 years since Knox and her then boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were imprisoned for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher. Knox was twice convicted and twice acquitted in the Italian courts. Trolls are small fry to the 30-year-old who served four years in prison.

Common ground: In the first episode of Amanda's show The Scarlet Letter Reports she meets feminist video blogger Anita Sarkeesian, who has experienced online harassment and death threats
Common ground: In the first episode of Amanda's show The Scarlet Letter Reports she meets feminist video blogger Anita Sarkeesian, who has experienced online harassment and death threats

Now her name has been cleared, and another man is serving a life sentence for the murder of Meredith, who was just 21 when her own life was taken from her. Justice may be done, but Knox's trials aren't over. Some still believe she is guilty, many still have questions, and old wounds are repeatedly prodded, for example by Ray D'Arcy.

In February when she went live on the RTÉ broadcaster's Saturday night TV show, Knox was shown the bloody footage of the murder scene, then asked to explain why she lied to police during the investigation of the crime.

"That is an interview I've done a million times, that I feel like I shouldn't have to do anymore," she says, referring to a false confession she made at dawn during police interrogations, that her boss, Congolese bar owner Patrick Lumumba, had murdered her friend.

"False confessions, coercive interrogation techniques, I'm happy to talk about those. But people who feel they are entitled to say 'you lied to the police, what's up with that?' Well, I did not lie to the police, and if you'd done your homework you'd know that.

"And by the way, I'm not on trial anymore, so why are you putting me on trial?

"I think Ray D'Arcy thought he did the best job he could," she says finally. "He just didn't think very hard, he did the very obvious thing. It was a missed opportunity for him."

Amanda Knox pictured after her murder acquittal in 2015
Amanda Knox pictured after her murder acquittal in 2015

She still has good memories of the five days she spent in Dublin. She enjoyed the Little Museum of Dublin, walking Howth Head and drinking "too many beers" in the Cobblestone and the Hacienda in Smithfield.

Now she is back in talk show mode, this time doing the interviewing herself. The topic? Trial by media - specifically the trial of women by media. Her first TV show, The Scarlet Letter Reports, is a series streamed by Facebook Live and Vice magazine that explores "the gendered nature of public shaming".

Knox will talk to feminist trailblazer Anita Sarkeesian, model Amber Rose, rape victim Daisy Coleman, actress Mischa Barton and Brett Rossi, porn actress. All these women have been in some way harassed and vilified by the media.

She is interested in "reclaiming their narratives", she says. "I spend less time interviewing them and more time empathising with them. Trying to offer context to their experiences, which was denied to them."

Amanda Knox didn't vote for Donald Trump, even though he came out in support of her while she was in prison. But Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who was allegedly paid off to stay quiet about her affair with Trump, is of particular interest to her. "I am so proud of her, coming out and speaking her truth, as a woman who works in the sex industry and is continuously slut-shamed and demeaned."

Material close to her heart.

Amanda Knox was 20 when she left behind her parents, step-parents, three younger sisters and Oma, her beloved German grandma, to study in Perugia for a few months. She was sporty and academic and very "happy", she says.

She quickly fell in love.

She had been dating Sollecito for a week when she and her two Italian housemates discovered Meredith Kercher's body in Meredith's room. Knox was considered a key witness and taken in for long hours of questioning. Unknown to her, she had become a murder suspect - Sollecito her suspected accomplice.

The prosecution, led by conservative Catholic Giuliano Mignini, built an elaborate case against her and she was found guilty in a massively publicised trial. As you might have seen in the Netflix documentary Amanda Knox, the media went to town on the story of a pretty girl with an evil mind. The nickname Foxy Knoxy - given to her by her soccer teammates when she was 13 - was turned against her as she was splashed across the papers, depicted as a depraved nymphomaniac who had killed her flat-mate during a botched sex game.

"People can take, take, take from you," she says of that time. "There are people whose profession is to do that. It's entertainment at the cost of human lives."

Much of the case built against her was based on scenarios Mignini put forward. Only a female killer could have covered their victim's body with a blanket. Only a female murderer would scream in terror at the police station as she relived the scene. Ultimately, forensic evidence proved her innocence and the guilt of a poor, drifting Ivory Coast immigrant, Rudy Guede.

When Knox was freed and put on a plane home in October 2011, she then had to try to live a normal life. But her nerves were frayed, her name besmirched. "Everyone has been accused of stealing a cookie from the cookie jar," she says. "But to be accused of murder? That is a very particular kind of stigma.

"There were so many traumas I had to unravel. There was an incredible amount of anger and grief and loss and fear. I had spent years estranged from my culture and my community and my friends. Then, there was being on trial for something I didn't do, and on top of that, hearing people talk about me like I was a monster, when I wasn't. Then having the media piggy-back on top of that, and profit for years from portraying me in the worst possible light, because it sold articles and magazines. Then on top of that, the gendered vilification."

"All wrongfully convicted people are portrayed as monsters," she believes. "But there's a special kind of monster that is a woman."

She will also tell her own story on The Scarlet Letter Reports, probably over two episodes. "I talk a lot," she says.

She does talk a lot, in perfect paragraphs, with a book-like articulacy that can only be the result of long hours spent indoors. She reads widely - her favourite author is Jon Ronson, who wrote So You've Been Publicly Shamed - "he deals with topics like people whose lives have been ruined". Monica Lewinksy is among her distinguished friends. She likes running and cycling and she buys her clothes in thrift stores.

Much was made of Knox's oddness when she was put on trial. Her smiles in the courtroom, the kiss she exchanged with her boyfriend outside the murder scene in her Perugian villa, the cartwheel she did at the police station.

Meeting her in Dublin, and over this interview, what comes across is how normal she is. Talking about her trials, she can drift into a state of almost presidential self-possession. She is also friendly, trusting and gracious.

She spent years behind bars for a crime she never committed, and still deals with prejudices and those armies of trolls. People have faked her obituary. People sneak up and take pictures of her in airports and (once) on a tour bus to Trim Castle. Death threats are nothing new to her. You expect her to be less trusting, but is this yet another projection of expectations, similar to those pinned on her to prove her guilt?

"When you meet me and hang out with me, I might come across as a very upbeat, driven person," she agrees. "I don't come across as someone who is wounded. One thing I learned through this process was when and where to put up a shield, and not expose myself as a vulnerable person. That's one of those prison tricks."

In Capenne women's prison she lived with drug traffickers, thieves and murderers. "I felt very alienated in that environment. I had never come into contact with a community like that. I did my best to not to smell like fear, which I constantly felt.

"There was an 'us' versus 'them' against society, insofar as 'we're prisoners, we're the ones who've been f***ed by society'. I had never been f***ed by society in the way that these people were."

She used her literacy to help other prisoners write letters, played guitar and studied Italian. But her every move was being leaked to the press, and she could trust nobody but the prison chaplain.

So how did she pick herself up and reclaim her own narrative, going from 20-year old captive to talk show host? "When I first came home, I was jazzed up," she recalls.

"But I came home to paparazzi, and no privacy and no autonomy. I did not have a voice apart from this chorus of people that had taken over my life and redefined it in a way that was out of my control."

Determined to pick up where she left off, she enrolled in the next semester of college, choosing creative writing. She tried working in a book shop, ignoring the red-top headlines that speculated on whether she was a psychopath. She was wary of strangers and even classmates.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic attacks, Amanda's mother pleaded with her to go to therapy, but the few therapists she saw weren't really up to the job. "Wrongful conviction, PTSD, you know, they're kind of niche?" she says and laughs.

She wanted to move on and bury her past, and she didn't want to be known as a wrongfully convicted person. "I thought, how could it be a part of my identity if I didn't do anything to make it happen? Then I came to realise that I had changed over the course of what I went through. I found that I had new perspectives, and I had new compassion."

One day her mother convinced her to go to a conference put on by the Innocence Project (the Innocence Network works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people and has projects all over the world including in Ireland). It was an unusual experience for Knox because she had just been re-convicted, in 2014, of murdering Meredith Kercher, and was facing extradition to Italy. "Part of me was like: 'I've been re-convicted, I don't think I really count. Can I go, or will they kick me out or something?'"

Her heart was racing when she entered the ballroom full of strangers, but she quickly felt welcomed when Antoine Day and Josh Kezer approached her. These are men who both spent decades in prison, wrongfully accused. "They swooped me up in this effusive embrace, so thrilled and so warm. They called me their little sister. They told me that I was safe, and they told me that I belonged."

Her voice falters and she seems to be crying, remembering this. "They knew what my fears were, what my hang-ups were. I learned that I was not alone, but I was part of a community.

"Most falsely accused are poor, marginalised black men. They were people I never thought I'd be in tune with, and yet I felt in tune with these people. And it did change my life," she says. "The thing we had in common was the fact that we had borne the weight of other people's mistakes, and that we had never been able to defend ourselves."

Her 2014 book Waiting to be Heard, and the Netflix documentary, both present the facts of her trials and many people don't now question her innocence. Others - many in anonymous corners - still do. There are salacious documentaries, true crime podcasts and an 'Amanda Knox Guilty' YouTube community. Model Cara Delevingne played her in a film.

If you go looking for her book on Amazon you come across many titles. Amanda Knox, Innocent or Guilty?, Angel Face, The Fatal Gift of Beauty and The Manipulative Memoir of Amanda Knox: A Critical Analysis, which is not very critical.

Has she read any of the books? "There are so many books I want to read in my life that I'm not going to waste my time on a lot of them," she says, but goes on to say she did read two books pertaining to her trials, Sollecito's Honour Bound and Meredith by Meredith's father, John Kercher. "That was incredibly excruciating to read. It was moving because he had these beautiful memories of Meredith and he was writing with the deep anguish of a father who had lost his daughter. There was also this anger directed at me, and it was so clear that he hated me. He felt that his family was very unseen and unheard, and I empathised with that because I also felt very unseen and unheard by him."

These days Knox advocates for the wrongfully accused with the Innocence Project, and describes herself as a journalist, essayist and public speaker. Many of her critics find it distasteful that she has taken on a public role which means Kercher's family are always reminded of their loss. For Knox, it is something she feels she has to do. "I don't think I was really given a choice, once Foxy Knoxy took over my identity. I was so long in the public eye, and people got to define who I was. I feel I need to prove who I am and what I really like, and what I really care about, with the work that I do."

She did try hiding, when she first returned from Italy. After she graduated, the editor of the West Seattle Herald wrote her a Facebook message to ask if she would like to write for the paper, and Knox said she would do so but only under a pseudonym.

"I very much wanted to be a writer. I couldn't begin my writing career the way other people did, because I realised anything I put out in the world would be picked apart and scrutinised and dissected and laughed at."

Under 'Emile Monte', she wrote daily features on the arts and books. "It was very liberating, because it meant I could be doing assignments without the baggage of my name."

Three years ago she was assigned to review Chris Robinson's co-written novel War of the Encyclopaedists. She liked it so much she went to interview him. By then her own book was out, she had been fully acquitted and she was using her name as a writer.

"At the end of the interview, Chris shook my hand and said 'We should be friends'. That meant the world to me," she says. "That he wanted to be my friend not because I was Amanda Knox but because I was a peer."

Today, Amanda and Chris are living a writerly life together in their one-bedroom rented house, with three cats. "We're saving up for a house - it's crazy out there. But we want to raise our kids within walking distance of our family."

She has rewritten her story and found some happiness, even if on certain days she feels "very sad". She sometimes fears that someone will come and get her. "Fear of my life being taken away from me, fear of losing everything I've been able to rebuild in my life, knowing how fragile the foundations we build for ourselves are."

As for the tireless Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini who has been promoted to state prosecutor since Knox's trials - what would she say to him now?

"I'm angry at my prosecutor, Mignini, and all the journalists who defamed me, but I'm also aware of how anger is limiting and blinding. I always remember that they are real people who make mistakes," she says kindly, but then her presidential tone lifts.

"If I could meet him I'd say: You were wrong about me. You can't do anything about it now, but you can remember that the next time you target someone. You thought you saw the worst in me, but you judged wrong. In reality, I saw the worst in you."

'The Scarlet Letter Reports' is online now, see facebook.com/thescarletletterreports

Irish Independent

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